Monday, July 18, 2011

Hey! I’m walking here!!

          Traffic in Kampala is evolution in action.  Survival of the fittest.  It is an adventure everyday and although a bit confusing at first becomes second nature quickly if you need to get somewhere fast (which probably won’t happen)  Many of the boda bodas and mutatus have religious sayings on them somewhere.  I believe this speaks to the strong belief in a higher power you need to take your life into your own hands and travel in Kampala.

If you’d like to get from Point A to Point B you have several options:

Walk it out.  Safest option by far.  A definite downside to walking is that there are not many sidewalks that are actually for pedestrian use.  If there are sidewalks they are usually appropriated by boda bodas or mutatus. Clearly the government built those sidewalks with a clairvoyant understanding that they would be used by motor vehicles more often than perambulators because they are surprisingly wide and smooth.  However, most roads don’t boast sidewalks and you are forced to walk on the street.  This leads you to be hyper-aware of other things occupying your street of choice.  Honking is your friend, remember that.  If you’re walking, hear a honk, and would like to retain all your vital body parts then it is imperative that you move far to the side of the street and let whomever was kind enough to warn you of their presence pass.  If, in a fit of reckless disregard for your own personal safety, you decided not to heed the first warning then you may be warned a second time with a prolonged and more strident wail.  This usually means you should dive off the road because your possession of your limbs is about to be called into question.

I want to ride my bicycle.  Lots of people here have bicycles which makes me happy.  Many of them use their bikes and their calf muscles as a way to earn a living.  Every day you can see these old rickety bikes manned by their determined riders carrying seemingly impossible loads.  30 jerry cans, stacks of lumber, mattresses, bulging sacks of coal, amazing amounts of produce, and other people regularly grace the small space behind the rider as he pits himself against hills, pot holes, and traffic.

Boda Boda, so nice you have to say it twice.  Boda bodas are small motorcycles which you can hire to take you directly to your destination.  Few drivers wear helmets and even fewer have helmets for their riders, but they are incredibly convenient.  While other schmucks are stuck twiddling their thumbs apparently endless traffic jams, you are loving life as you zip through/around/in between cars, vans, and semi trucks!!  Men sit normally on the bikes when they are passengers but women are expected to sit side saddle to be more demure.  I am more than happy to pull my “Uninformed Foreigner” card and ride normally while clinging desperately to the driver.  Riding bodas is kind of like betting against the house while gambling; you may win few times but the house is always going home with the big bucks.  In the interest of economy, people manage to fit lots of people and things onto one boda.  The most impressive examples of this that I have seen are: 4 children and one driver or the driver, 3 adults, and one loudly protesting pregnant goat.

Taxis/mutatus/combis:  A rose by any other name will still be just as crowded.  These vehicles are the lovechild of a minivan and a buses; the liger of the motorized world.  They run specific courses through the city and the surrounding area and I am 99.9% positive that there is some method to the madness but the key to understanding it is still eluding me.  All of the buses say they are licensed to hold 14 passengers but if more people are willing to pay and not willing to wait for the next combi then they can carry however many passengers are willing (read forced) to squeeze in.  These guys are the ones usually stuck in the traffic jams in the mornings.  It once took my co-worker and I two and a half hours to go somewhere in the city just because traffic was so bad.  The plus side of this waiting is you have plenty of time to strike up conversations with the fellow passengers who are sitting in your lap or read some of your book.

Private hires.  What we would call taxis in the States.  Nice to use but you miss the interactions with other people and they are too expensive for everyday use.

Levitation.  Still working on it. I’ll keep you updated

So now that you have an idea what the main players are in the traffic game of Kampala, I’d like to tell you a story to illustrate the driving prowess of the people I get to share a city with this summer:
The organization I work for here does a lot of programming in the surrounding communities.  One day I was driving back from a testing and counseling outreach in a local slum area of Wabigalo.  The way through Wabigalo is, I’m sure, the most twisty, potholed, narrow path that ever had the audacity to call itself a street.  I was really concerned about how close our little car was to all of the people who live out their lives mere feet from this road.  We eventually had to slow down because there was a lorry (a small semi-truck kind of thing) was chugging slowly through the twists.  I was shocked at the optimism evident in the driver’s attempt to navigate a street that his vehicle was patently too large to be on.  But wait, there’s more!  There was another lorry intent on the same purpose coming the other way.  Neither one could backup through the mess of turns.  So what to do?  Leave both of them until Kampala’s city government decides to widen the street to accommodate two cars comfortably?  Of course not! They’ll just go around one another.  The plan is perfect except there was nowhere for them to go.  Or so I very naively thought.  After a series of false starts, the drivers consulted the watching residents of Wabigalo who quickly complied with moving store fronts, clotheslines and A HOUSE out of the path.  Then, in a maneuver that was a slap in the face to the Pauli Exclusion Principle, they managed to scoot around one another.  I’m sure that physicists around the world felt the sting of one of their principles being shown up so easily.  No worries though, after successfully getting around the oncoming truck, the coal lorry in front of my car promptly fell of the shoulder of the road and dumped most of its cargo so we know that gravity is still holding strong.  Everyone in the truck was fine and they had their coal reloaded quickly and were on their merry way.  Impressive.

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